NEW YORK – Presidential politics move fast. What we’re watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:
Days to general election: 92
Days to first state offering early voting (North Carolina): 33
With early voting fast approaching, both presidential camps are feverishly making final preparations for the post-summer sprint to Election Day as the coronavirus pandemic and related economic devastation show few signs of improving.
Democrat Joe Biden is on the verge of picking a running mate, if he hasn't already, a decision that is likely the most significant of his decades-long political career. And President Donald Trump's team is fighting to settle on a campaign message as the Republican president himself takes dramatic steps to undermine the integrity of the election in case he loses.
Never has an incumbent U.S. president so blatantly attacked the election process itself and done so little to try to fix it. Trump spent much of last week decrying the expected surge in mail voting during the pandemic, going so far as to suggest delaying the election date. While congressional leaders in both parties slapped down the idea, Trump did not back away from the shocking suggestion or his baseless claims that the 2020 election will be rigged against him. At the same time, the Trump administration has opposed any significant efforts in the latest coronavirus rescue package to protect and strengthen mail voting.
But this week largely belongs to Biden, who is days away from announcing the winner of the veepstakes. The public and private jockeying among the prospective picks has intensified, but expect it to get even hotter before it's over. Beleaguered Republicans are praying for a flawed pick who would help make the 2020 contest a binary choice instead of a referendum on Trump.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
And the veepstakes winner is?
A smart operative told us over the weekend that only an extremely small circle — maybe three or four people — truly knows Biden's thinking regarding his running mate, and those people aren't talking.
That means much of what you see and hear in the coming days is likely a reflection of spinning by the supposed finalists and by Washington group think that may or may not be connected to reality.
We know for sure that Biden will pick a woman, and he said he would make his decision this week, although his campaign has raised the possibility that a formal announcement wouldn't come until next week. The finalists are thought to include California Sen. Kamala Harris, former national security adviser Susan Rice, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Rep. Karen Bass, and it's always possible the choice will be someone else.
Many establishment voices are urging Biden to go with Harris, a potential fundraising star who has already been vetted on the presidential stage and been elected statewide multiple times. Some Obama allies are pushing Rice, who has never run for public office but has an unrivaled command of global affairs and experience working at Biden's side. Many progressives are hoping for a more “exciting” pick — such as Warren or Bass — who could help energize the party's left flank.
This marks the last major moment of the 2020 campaign truly under Biden's control.
Will Trump do anything to strengthen vote by mail?
Trump last week floated the idea of delaying the November election until the pandemic improves to a level where it's safer for most people to vote in person. To be clear, the election date will not be delayed. Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who would have to change federal law to move the election, have overwhelmingly rejected the idea.
The question then becomes whether the Trump administration will do anything to address his concerns about mail voting. Experts say that the threat of major fraud is virtually nonexistent, but the postal service is legitimately overwhelmed and state elections officials struggled to count the explosion of mail ballots throughout the primary season, which delayed final results by weeks in some cases.
This is a very foreseeable crisis. Yet so far, Trump seems far more willing to undermine voter confidence in the election than address serious concerns. Republicans have an opportunity to strengthen mail voting in the new coronavirus rescue package, but absent Trump's support, it's hard to imagine Trump's party doing much to address the issue.
What's happening to the economy?
Last month's optimism about the economy seems to be fading. The government released new numbers last week documenting a record drop for the nation's gross domestic product last quarter in addition to rising unemployment applications. At the same time, Republican governors, including staunch Trump allies like Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, are openly contemplating rolling back reopening plans, if they haven't already, should coronavirus infections continue to strain their states' health care systems.
This is bad news for Trump politically and bad news for millions of Americans whose livelihoods are at stake. To make matters worse, Congress failed to pass an economic relief package last week as enhanced unemployment benefits expired for nearly 30 million people. It's easy to imagine the loss of such income having a further chilling effect on an already shaky U.S. economy.
The longer this economic pain lasts, the harder it will be for Trump to convince voters that he's better positioned than Biden to rebuild the economy. The coronavirus death toll, meanwhile, continues to surge.
Will anyone see Trump's formal nomination?
GOP officials said over the weekend that the vote to formally give Trump his party's 2020 presidential nomination will be conducted in private later this month. While Trump called off the public components of the convention in Florida last month because of the pandemic, more than 300 delegates are scheduled to gather in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Aug. 24 to make Trump the GOP standard-bearer once more.
The moment is usually a highlight of the national presidential conventions, but a spokeswoman for the Republican National Convention said that the press would not be allowed to cover it because of health concerns. While Trump's nomination is assured, the decision to block coverage of the historic moment is curious.
Nominating conventions are traditionally meant to be media bonanzas, as political parties seek to leverage the attention the events draw to spread their message to as many voters as possible. If the GOP decision stands — an official later said the decision wasn't final — it will be the first party nominating convention in modern history to be closed to reporters.
THE FINAL THOUGHT
One of Obama's top advisers, David Axelrod, said a presidential campaign is an “MRI of the soul.” That's especially true for a first-time candidate.
But most Americans know Biden from his long tenure. This time, it may be his running mate who gets even more scrutiny. The less time that person has spent on the national stage, the more likely of unforeseen controversy.
Bass, who has never sought national or statewide office, faced tough questions on the Sunday morning talk show circuit about her decades-old travels to Cuba and, more recently, her warm description of its leader Fidel Castro after his death.
As she's learning, that kind of thing doesn't play so well in Florida, a vital general election battleground. And that's before the video surfaced of Bass seeming to praise aspects of Scientology at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Just two of Biden's finalists — Harris and Warren — have been vetted already under the bright lights of presidential politics. For everyone else, there is a real element of uncertainty. With every risk, however, there could be a reward.
2020 Watch runs every Monday and provides a look at the week ahead in the 2020 election.